Wednesday, March 02, 2011

3/2/2011 Homework Talk

I went to a meeting at our school tonight that the principal organized, to invite parents to discuss concerns about too much homework. This was motivated by the movie "Race to Nowhere," which I haven't seen.

About 40 parents showed up. First we split into 3 groups to get acquainted and raise issues, then each group's leader presented what the group discussed. My group was led by a first-grade parent and first-grade teacher in the same district, who had seen the movie. Most of the parents in my group were 2nd- and 3rd-grade parents, mostly moms, and with a higher representation of 2- or 3-kid families than is typical in our classes.

Our discussion opened with about how homework before 4th grade has not been shown to enhance student success before 4th grade. Intuitively I agree, but I hate "correlations" like that because "success" is so ill-defined. And for a first-grader, I'm not worried about long-term success, I'm worried about getting through the next book report.

Though overall everyone agreed there was too much homework, there really wasn't much consensus, even about what "too much" means. One mom thought the difficulty of the homework was too high. Other moms thought the quantity was too high. Others focused on the time it took. Many were concerned about the stress it places on the children; they probably have kids who actually care, unlike mine who shift the homework stress to me. I was glad other moms agreed that the content was an issue, that it needs not to be parent-homework.

Another raised an issue that has bothered me too, which is that it becomes repetitive. That's true, Julian's homework format hasn't changed much since the beginning of the year. In some ways that's good: it's predictable and he can do it himself, but if that reflects his classwork too I wonder if this explains why his behavior reports have been coming in "poor" so often.

Two things we don't experience, but I'm sympathetic to, came up often. One was the child's confidence. One mom said that she didn't want to ask the teacher to reduce her child's homework because it would send her kid the message that he's not capable. We were given the same suggestion by Gabriel's first-grade teacher, but the message I didn't want to send was that Mom and Dad would get him out of homework. Confidence has never been an issue for either of our grade-schoolers. The other thing is ability -- can they do their homework by themselves; the math in particular. This again has never been an issue for us (yet?) both boys have little trouble with the homework content itself. It's getting them to do it that's the problem. If they were more conscientious, they'd both blow through their homework in plenty of time.

One mom I thought was completely out of control assured us that kids are very capable, they'll get through this, long-term this is all good for them. She offered that her kid would be idle and bored and have nothing to do, that he needed the extra structured time with more homework. I disagreed immediately and said I was fine with my kid being bored sometimes. That's when the creative wheels really start to turn, and they need unstructured time. Many nods in agreement.

Out-of-control-mom also told the mom who was concerned about difficulty of work that it was just a matter of practice -- work on the extra math every day without fail and the kid will get through it. She didn't seem to pick up that this is exactly what most of us were here to rally against. When I brought up that the homework was especially difficult for full-time working parents, she asked me, "Can you work from home?" Huh?! It seems the most rabid parents are the ones least capable of critical thinking.

After the small-group discussion, each group presented a summary of each group's primary concerns. I cheered aloud when another group leader described her group's top issue as "Parent Homework (e.g. Heritage Dolls)." THANK. YOU. Yes, that is work for US. Another mom piped up, "But didn't you find that fun?" Me and several others immediately chorused, "NOOOO!!" and the principal laughed nervously.

(I wonder what the heritage-doll/diorama/culture-book advocates would think about parent-dependent project they didn't find fun. How about a project to find a local open space preserve and take a hike and sprint up a hill with your 1st-grader? I'd find that quite fun. Inappropriate to assign as schoolwork to be sure, but fun. I'd like to see how the (let's face it) Indian moms would feel about that project.)

The group leader speaking added that most parents in her group felt there wasn't enough homework. The mom who thought the heritage dolls were fun offered that long-term, it was important for kids to get used to daily turn-in homework early, so that they were prepared for middle school and high school, so they learned to take on daily responsibility themselves. I said, "Yes, but not in FIRST GRADE!"

Where do teachers fit in? As a group, do they believe in homework? Do they realize how much of it is done by the parents, especially in the younger grades? Do they feel it advances the childs' learning in that grade?

Another rare point of consensus in this discussion is a more standardized curriculum -- the principal didn't even know if the 1st-grade teachers get together and agree on what to teach. It seems there's a great deal of variation from one teacher to another within a grade -- for instance, Gabriel's 1st-grade teacher did daily homework turn-in, but most other 1st-grade teachers didn't. And I learned of a 3rd-grade teacher who assigns 9 book reports, instead of our measly 6.

While I'd like to see some more regularity, I also hate to hamstring teachers and take away flexibility. Teachers know better than anyone else what their class can handle -- should a teacher be told what to teach to if the class is ready for more? Or less? So far we've had very good teachers (even if they assigned too much work), and I'm very pro-teacher and in favor of maximum flexibility. The problem comes in when the parents of 18 out of 20 kids in the class want more homework, more advanced work, send their kids to after-school learning centers, and have no compunction about doing their craft projects for them. What is a teacher to do when the other 2 parents complain?

Our elementary school has 750 kids, about 40 parents showed up tonight, and many were there to advocate for homework. I really appreciate the principal taking this on -- he has a very tough job because of the demographic of this school district. He said he aims for balance, and very calmly fielded the variety of comments, and explained that he'd be taking all these comments to the school site committee that oversees the school curriculum. So nothing will change right away, but he's tackling it slowly and practically.

Meantime, this tiger is going to snack on granola.


No comments: